The Weekend Observer, 25 July 1992
Kabir of Karnataka
The nineteenth century saint Sharieff Saheb of Shishunal, though born in a devout Muslim family was well versed in Veerashaivism and had a Brahmin, Govinda Bhatt as his guru. He left a legacy of hundreds of mystic poems in Kannada and more importantly a tradition of samanvaya—harmony.
SHARIEFF in Persian means one with lofty ideals and high culture. Perhaps with prescience Imamsaheb, a humble and devout peasant, and his wife named their belated off spring thus. Born in Shishunal a small village in Dharwad district of Karnataka, in 1819, Sharieff Saheb in his seventy years of life ingested all that is lofty in the culture of Karnataka. Its tradition of harmony, of the protestant Shaivaite culture of the Veerashaiva saints of twelfth Century, of the Vaishnavaite dasas of sixteenth century and a great poetic heritage comprising 'high' poetry of Pampa and centuries of oral folk poetry of Sarvajnya and others. The first available work on poetics and criticism in Kannada belongs to the tenth century.
Sharieff left behind him hundreds of poems expressing his spiritual anguish, critical and ecstatic comments on different faiths and spiritual contemporaries and most importantly his message of different spiritual paths leading to the same end. He did not write them down. Those who heard them have jotted down a few for posterity but most of them are still sung in the villages of Karnataka purely based on the memory of a people.
Sharieff spent his childhood surrounded by the love and affection of his parents and discussions with his father on the importance and meaning of Namaz, nature of Allah and whether he is listening to our prayers only in a mosque, etc.
After the fall of the Peshwas in 1818, the East India Company amalgamated this region into the Bombay presidency. One thing that was common to all these rulers was the utter neglect of education in the region. The burden of mass education was largely borne by schools run by Veerashaiva religious institutions.
Imamsaheb entered his son in one of them. Seeing his eagerness the teacher introduced him to the vast Veerashaiva literature. At this stage Sharieff showed interest in Vedic studies and his father entered him in a Vedic school run by Govinda Bhatt in a temple in a near by village where he was taught Vedas, Upanishads, Smriti, Ramayan-Mahabharat, Puranas etc. Later he independently studied the Koran and the Hadith.
Even though equipped with such a rich background in religious studies at a tender age Sharieff was a normal young man actively interested in the activities in his village and surroundings.
Taking advantage of a new scheme of partial support for local schools, announced by the newly formed Board of Education in the -Bombay presidency, Sharieff successfully mobilised the village elders to start a school in the backward Shishunal. He taught all that he had learnt from various teachers in his childhood to the children of his village. Soon he took initiative in starting similar schools in the surrounding villages and became popular as 'Sharieff Master’.
In his reformatory enthusiasm one of the cultural events that came to his notice was the celebration of Mohurram in the area. It had two characteristics. Firstly it was celebrated by the two major local communities, Muslims and Veerashaivas, together in very real display of brotherhood. Secondly the participants often used to forget the religious significance Mohurram as homage to the martyrdom of Hazrat Hussain and his followers in Karbala nearly fourteen centuries ago at the hands of the tyrant Yezid. Instead, it used to degenerate into raucous revelry.
Sharieff got down to changing the situation. He wrote the story of Karbala in a popular folk form riwayat and choreographed a group dance to go with it using the folk form of hejjemela. His riwayats became immensely popular though at times he cried in anguish in his poems that people still did not understand the significance of Mohurram.
When he came of age, his parents arranged his marriage with a girl, Fatima, from a nearby village. The couple lived happily and soon there arrived a baby girl. Sharieff lost himself in domestic bliss and responsibility of farming to provide for his family.
But great distress soon befell him in wave after wave. First his parents died of old age. Then his dear daughter fell victim to cholera. This was followed by the death of his heart broken wife.
Now Sharieff was left with no one dear in his life. Shaken by his misfortune, he reflected on the fragility of human life. His early interest in spiritual questions led him to seek a way out of the misery through a spiritual pilgrim's journey that took him back to his teacher of childhood, Govinda Bhatt. Govinda Bhatt was delighted to accept him as his shishya, despite acute peer pressure and threats of excommunication.
Guided by his guru, Sharieff soon started having mystical experiences. He sought wisdom and mysticism wherever it came to his notice among his contemporaries in North Karnataka. Along with spiritual wisdom came the unstoppable flow of religious poetry, which to this day is sung in the villages of Karnataka.
In simple rustic Kannada, Sharieff commented on the hypocrisy among followers of various religions who do not understand the tenets of their religion but engage in empty rituals while leading lives of deceit and hedonism. He wrote number of poems on the need for self restraint and detachment.
At the ripe age of seventy when he had spent his life in progressing poverty and hunger Sharieff decided to end it in a yogic fashion and surrounded by people he went into trance and never regained consciousness.
On his death there arose a dispute regarding his funeral, both Hindus and Muslims claimed him as their own. Finally realising the message of his life, both communities jointly organised it. There was reading of the Koran as well as Hindu scriptures. There was Allah ho Akbar as well as Har Har Mahadev. Since then his grave is visited by both communities. While on the left Muslims perform Namaz, on the right Hindus perform pooja and arati.
People come in thousands to pay respects to this Kabir of Karnataka. On new moon days and Mondays during the month of shravan and during the religious fairs in his honour, his songs are sung by numerous folk singers.
In the cool shade of neem trees and fragrant jasmine the spirit of Sharieff, the spirit of communal harmony and tolerance flourish.